By Gary M. Kramer.
The wordless pre-credit sequence of It Takes from Within sets the tone for this stark, atmospheric drama: three couples crawl, stand, and lie in a bed on an illuminated patch of grass. Gorgeously filmed in luminous black and white, the sequences does not make much sense, but its point may become apparent to patient viewers over the course of writer/director Lee Eubanks’ cryptic film.
A man (James Feagin) and a woman (Kristin Duarte) have arrived in a small town to attend a burial. Who is being buried is not disclosed, and none of the film’s eight major characters have names. The couple appears to be ending their relationship in a cheap hotel room. Their dialogue, like much of the dialogue in the film, is vague. As they each go off on their own, they experience a series of surreal, fateful encounters.
The woman walks into town and trips over a man lying in a pool of his own blood. She meets a strange woman as she tries to get some help. Meanwhile, the man drinks water from a dirty birdbath and has a masturbatory fantasy in the hotel room. A later scene is set at a bar/diner. The aforementioned strange woman is playing with food, and cutting a plate of meat with an Exact-o knife, while a young couple is introduced. She speaks French words and phrases. He seems to be anxious to get on the road.
Eubanks is deliberately being obfuscating in It Takes from Within, forcing audiences to form connection between the episodes and characters. Are the three couples different stages in the lives of the same two people? Perhaps. But Eubanks, who seems to eschew narrative devices like character development, isn’t telling.
Instead, the filmmaker features scenes that are visually interesting if dramatically head-scratching. The man sits in a car, spouting a poetic monologue that fails to engender any emotion. He gets a bouquet of flowers only to smash them into the road, where they catch on fire. It’s hypnotic and symbolic, but little else.
It Takes from Within works best if audiences try not to ascribe meaning to what is being shown and simply let the spellbinding images (by ace cinematographer Jason Crow) wash over them. There is a terrific sequence of bodies and blood in a bed that is artfully filmed. Likewise, there are a handful of surrealistic scenes, such as one involving the strange woman, her arms coated in blood, touching the faces of the man and the woman.
Despite the handful of scenes featuring blood in It Takes from Within, this is not really a horror film. There is no on-screen violence. Most of the “action” consists of the characters walking, or searching, rather than doing anything dramatic. A mysterious scene has men crawling naked through a grassy field; another features two of the three main couples on a beach. The most narrative moment has a man chatting with the woman at a café about coffee, but that sequence is another episode that goes nowhere slowly.
Eubanks likes to frame his characters in ways that amplify their isolation. The few tracking shots are slow and deliberate. He includes discordant music on the soundtrack to cue viewers that a scene may be a dream (or a nightmare). Eubanks wants to create a sense of dread, and while he does this in a pretentious fashion, there is no denying his oblique, abstract approach has effective moments.
It Takes from Within is not an actor’s showcase in the traditional sense. But Eubanks elicits strong, canny performances from his two leads. James Feagin and Kristin Duarte are compelling mainly because of their (in)expressiveness. Their flat line deliveries are well suited to characters that lack feeling. The camera captures their limited emotions through their stony gazes and rigid body language. They are fascinating to watch. So too are the supporting players who prove to be memorable foils for the main characters.
Anyone who appreciates challenging, avant-garde/experimental cinema will find It Takes from Within to be constantly intriguing. The striking visuals are the film’s highlight, proving that Eubanks has an eye for moody composition. Moreover, while the title is never completely explained, the existential dread it represents – and that the characters convey – is certainly palpable.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.